One of the major principles of Cabinet government is that the deliberations of the ministry are secret. This is related to the idea that the cabinet is collectively responsible for its decisions and actions.
The principle of cabinet solidarity is important for governments wishing to maintain a united front in public. Often this united front extends to the government’s relations with its own party members in Parliament.
It is now accepted, for example, that cabinet ministers will all support cabinet decisions when they are presented to the Caucus (in the case of the ALP) or the party-room (in the case of the coalition). This solidarity allows the executive to nearly always get its way with the parliamentary wing and contributes to the domination of the parliament, particularly the House of Representatives, by the government of the day.
Cabinet secrecy is crucial to this control by the executive.
Facilitating full and frank Debate
Ministers must be able to speak freely within the cabinet room. They need to be able to discuss issues and political strategy with each other in a frank and uninhibited manner. Discussions would be seriously circumscribed if ministers thought that their comments would be reported outside.
Fairness in government Decision-Making
The nature of government decisions is such that private individuals and organisations could benefit from advance knowledge of government plans. This is particularly true of financial decisions involving banking, interest rates, industry protection, and suchlike. Secrecy is necessary in the interests of fairness and justice to all.
Sometimes, decisions involve questions of defence and national security, hence secrecy is essential.
Achieving Coherence and Integrity Within the Government
Cabinet decisions are often arrived at after much debate, argument and negotiation. As in all things political, there are winners and losers. Cabinet secrecy prevents the government appearing divided, as well as minimising the chances that individual ministers will “leak” information to the media, or others, in order to promote their own interests or political ambitions.
Interestingly, cabinet secrecy evolved from the days when British monarchs were starting to become dependant on the support of their apppointed ministers in the parliament. As Graham Maddox points out:
Originally cabinet maintained its solidarity against the king, who could otherwise play off one minister against another or dismiss individual ministers. For a ministry to survive as a whole, and to have an opportunity to promote consistent policies, it was necessary that it should stick together and, if threatened with attack by the monarch, should resign collectively. The king would then have to find another prime minister who could ‘manage’ the parliament and equip himself with another team – no easy task when the king had just alienated a sizeable proportion of the talent in parliament by dismissing them from office. Since it became increasingly difficult for kings to maintain the support of parliament without accepting the ministry, shown by parliamentary processes to have the confidence of the parliament, the flexible Westminster system gradually began to impose democratic elements on the government of the country. The ministers of the crown began to be chosen in effect, if not in name, by the people’s representatives rather than by the wearer of the crown.
Australian Democracy In Theory and Practice, (Pearson Education, Third Edition, 2000), p224.